By Pete Kennedy
Father Francis Rinaldi, OSFS, is celebrating a lot of milestones in 2019. This year marks 60 years since he graduated from Salesianum High School, 60 years since he joined the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, and 50 years since he was ordained as a priest.
The 77-year-old Wilmington native has spread the Gospel “here, there and everywhere” — in his placements from Virginia to Niagara Falls to Michigan. He’s now retired, but he still serves in an assistant capacity at St. Anthony of Padua.
“It really is a blessing to be able to celebrate the Liturgy in a magnificent church that so much gives a sense of the presence of the Lord,” he said.
Rinaldi also says Mass every other week at nearby St. Catherine of Siena Parish. He posts weekly reflections on faith in a YouTube video series. His goal, he said, is to encourage people to develop a personal relationship with God.
“I want people to draw closer to the Lord,” he said. “It says in the Scriptures, ‘God is love,’ so we need to find out how much God loves us, and from that everything else flows … what church is about, what religion is about.”
Rinaldi is originally from Wilmington’s Browntown neighborhood, which was filled with Italian and Polish families when he was a boy in the 1940s. His father, Frank Sr., was an electrician with IBEW 313 and his mother, Rose, worked at the Department of Motor Vehicles. While he was a student at St. Elizabeth School, his family moved to Scott Street on the north side of the city.
Even as a boy, he felt drawn to a religious life, especially at Salesianum, which is run by the Oblates, an order of Roman Catholic priests and brothers.
“In high school, with the Oblates, I felt a strong sense of wanting to become a priest,” Rinaldi said. “When I made that known to my parents, my mother was very much against it. She wanted children with the Rinaldi name, and I was the only boy in the family.”
But his father felt differently. Frank Sr.’s parents had wanted him to enter the priesthood, and while he didn’t go down that path, he supported his son’s wishes.
“He was very much for it, so that was God’s big help for me,” he said.
Rinaldi joined the Oblates, who invested in his education and soon sent him to western New York, where he earned a bachelor’s degree at Niagara University. He taught at North Catholic University, which has since closed. He attained a master’s degree in Spanish Language Literature from Villanova University, which would come in handy as he worked with the Hispanic population for decades to come.
As he trained to become a priest, he moved to Michigan and earned a master’s degree in religious education from the University of Detroit. After he was ordained in 1969, he was assigned to the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, where he spent about 12 years.
He then moved to Ridgely, Maryland, working as a chaplain with a group of Benedictine nuns and helping out at various parishes in region. With a fluency in Spanish, he ministered to Mexican and Guatemalan farm workers on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Whenever he is commended for his work, Rinaldi redirects the praise.
“If I’ve done well, the Holy Spirit has done well,” he said.
Rinaldi returned to Wilmington in 2006 to care for his mother, who was in deteriorating health. While he feels blessed to work at St. Anthony’s, he is upset by the dwindling numbers he sees in the pews.
“At Christmas time, we get around 3,000 people. But on a regular weekend, total attendance is around 400,” he said. “It’s very sad that people are becoming more secular and less devoted.”
In recent years, Rinaldi has scaled back his activity level to match his energy level.
“I’m kind of famous for walking. People see me in the neighborhood,” he said.
He doesn’t walk as much as he used to, and sometimes he opts to walk indoors, but he still gets outside as much as he can.
“Walking outside clears your head. It frees you up and connects you to the real world,” he said. “If you stay indoors, you can get lost in a world that’s not realistic.”